Precise and patient, Duke may have enough this time

on Scheyer and Kyle Singler

You could almost hear the Cameron Crazies.

Dribble, dribble.

Pass.

Dribble, dribble.

Pass.

Jon Scheyer would hold the ball, maybe not going so far as to put it on his hip and stand there, but holding it nonetheless. Maybe make a jab step, and back out of it, keeping his dribble until he needed it to forge a better passing lane.

All of this happening some 35-40 feet from the basket.

North Carolina was playing with an intensity Tar Heels’ fans have been begging to see for three weeks, keeping the eighth-ranked and bitter rival Blue Devils close in front of them, and at times, behind them.

But really, the Dukies were closer in their rear view mirror than they actually appeared.

Because, really, that’s all any UNC lead in the first meeting between the two historic programs on Wednesday night really was — a slim little edge that Duke could probably wipe out anytime it needed to.

All it needed was time, and perhaps a bit of rest.

And so Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler would weave the ball around the backcourt between them, too distant even for them to attempt a shot. But that’s not what they were looking for. They were seeking a crease in the Heels’ defense, one they would wait on until the waning seconds of the shot clock to attack.

North Carolina fans may have felt like the game was, if not in their hands, at least attainable from about the 12-minute mark in the second half on to, say, 7 minutes to go in the game. The Heels even led 43-39 with 11:33 to go, and the Dome’s roof was perilously close to being blasted from its moldings.

But the Devils painstakingly meandered the ball up the floor and into their deliberate halfcourt set, choosing precision over panic and persistance over desperation.

And even in a game in which they did very little right, the Blue Devils were as calculated and smooth as any team in the Top 3 in the final 7 minutes of the game, outplaying North Carolina so handily that all the Heels had left was the bad taste of a nothing more than a measly moral victory.

Is Duke good enough to win the national title? The jury is still out on that, even though the Devils will likely either gather the ACC regular season championship or league tournament title — or both. They’ll be nothing less than a No. 2 seed in March and will probably have no more than six losses all season.

And yet questions will continue to follow a team that hasn’t, in recent years, enjoyed the kind of monumental success the program made look so routine two decades ago. It will be posited that the Devils will struggle through another poor shooting night in March, that at least once against a tournament team, they will have one of their Big 3 struggle, and then that will be the end of them, perhaps no further than the Sweet 16.

But watching the poise with which the Blue Devils played North Carolina, a team in desperation mode at home, trying to rekindle all the magic of the last five years in one night, and in front of the most decorated Tar Heel in history, it was clear that Duke may very well be good enough to grind its way back to the Final Four.

The Blue Devils won’t wow anybody with flash or raw athleticism. That’s obvious now.

But they just might outthink you, backing the ball up and slowing things down for a 5-minute stretch so that their best players can save their legs while staying on the floor. It’s a strategy fraught with danger, allowing a lesser team to remain close for long stretches, gambling that your execution at clutch time will far exceed that of the opponent’s.

But it worked on Wednesday night. And it worked well.

Is Duke flawed? Yes. But most teams are. Shoot 25 percent for 35 minutes against Kentucky or Kansas (and maybe even Maryland), and the Blue Devils will get slapped around.

But if it’s tied with 3 minutes to go, there may be no more frightening team in all the land.

That much we know.

Just ask the Tar Heels.

 

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Filed under ACC, ACC Tournament, Alex Podlogar, Coach K, College Basketball, Designated Hitter, Duke Blue Devils, Final Four, Mike Krzyzewski, NCAA Tournament, North Carolina Tar Heels, Sports, Sports columns, The Sanford Herald, UNC Tar Heels

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